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Beltrami County Board: Red Lake plans to take over cash assistance program

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The Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians hopes to provide emergency cash assistance to eligible band members starting Jan. 1.

Beltrami Health and Human Services Department officials informed county commissioners on Tuesday of the band's intent to take over from the county the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program.

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Emergency cash assistance eligibility services through TANF is now provided by Beltrami County Health and Human Services through its satellite office Redby, said John Pugleasa, county HHS Economic Assistance Division director.

"The program, the old Aid to Families with Dependent Children, is the county's responsibility through the state for income maintenance, food and child care," Pugleasa said. "We take information and evaluate eligibility."

The total picture is part of the Minnesota Family Investment Program, he said.

With a $17.5 million budget for 2011, public assistance accounts for $9.4 million of the HHS budget. On the revenue side, $10.6 million comes from state and federal sources of the $17.5 million, and $5.37 million from property taxes.

"Red Lake wishes to take over the cash assistance program, but not the food program," Pugleasa said.

As American Indian tribes are sovereign, Pugleasa said Red Lake is able to assume the TANF program and develop a direct relationship with the state. But administration of food stamps, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"Tribes by law can establish their own program" for emergency cash assistance, he said. "The state or county has no say in it."

In fact, the county wasn't notified until Nov. 10 of Red Lake's intention, after it had begun work on the proposal with the state, said Mary Marchel, Beltrami HHS director.

"We have since had some informal meetings with the state Human Services Department and Red Lake," she said.

The change may affect staffing levels at the county's Redby office, Pugleasa said, as TANF moves to tribal offices and SNAP and child care remains as county services.

Before the tribe can start the program, the federal government needs to know the number of people estimated to serve and what resources the tribe is willing to dedicate to operate an office, he said. "The Feds are negotiating with the tribe now."

Pugleasa said Beltrami County HHS staff "have heard off and on of the tribe's intent to go this way, but they don't have to tell us anything," he said. "But they have informally kept us in the loop."

"By and large, you've got to believe most will be honest, but there are exceptions," Board Chairman Jack Frost said in asking about protection against welfare fraud by a new office out of the county's jurisdiction.

"That would be the responsibility of the tribe," Pugleasa said.

"The bottom line is the people who have need, that we do them no harm," said Commissioner Joe Vene.

"The general public would like to hear that we're making government smaller and more efficient," said Commissioner Jim Lucachick. "I sense this is a positive step for the Red Lake Band of Chippewa and Beltrami County. Those folks won't get any less services, hopefully more and better services. We need to get the funds to the folks who need them."

Commissioner Jim Heltzer said he hoped that there would be measures to prevent fraud by double-dipping -- claiming assistance from both the county and the tribe.

"They would have to be held accountable," Pugleasa said.

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